Praised as the greatest film director of the 20th century, the feminist, Greenpeace activist, Hitler’s muse and Mike Jagger’s friend, Helena (Leni) Riefenstahl would have turned 119 this month.
Photo by: Leni Riefenstahl, signature
Many bibliographers and historians in the course of years have shaped up a richly fleshed-out portraiture and social history for Riefenstahl. She’s definitely one of the most controversial figures of our time. Even though she was never a member of the Nazi Party and always denied being a propagandist, her films helped to created what became known as the “Hitler myth.”
Leni Riefenstahl was born Helene Berta Amalie Riefenstahl in Berlin in August 1902. Born to a plumber and a seamstress, Leni had inherited her father’s autocratic temperament, and no one could ever persuade her that there was something she couldn’t do. Embracing every new task passionately, she embarked on many eccentric journeys. Becoming a dancer (even though an injury at 22 forced her to give it up) was to her as exciting as deciding to lose her virginity to a 39-year-old tennis star and police chief whom she didn’t yet know (both missions successfully completed). She tried herself at many things. She did little modelling, entered a beauty contest, and acted in silent movies.
Photo by: Bundesarchiv Bild 183-R99035, Adolf Hitler und Leni Riefenstahl
Photo by: Bundesarchiv Bild 152-42-31, Nürnberg, Leni Riefenstahl mit Heinrich Himmler
In 1932 she turned to directing and filmed (which she also appeared in) The Blue Light, when she was noticed by Hitler. In 1933 he asked Riefenstahl to film a Nazi rally. Dissatisfied with the result, she instead filmed at the Nazi Party Congress in Nuremburg in 1934. Her infamous Triumph of the Will was shot on about 400 km of film, which took almost two years to edit into a 114-minute documentary. It was a success, winning several awards and showcasing new techniques, such as attaching a moving camera to a flagpole to capture panoramic crowd shots. Film critic Roger Ebert praised Riefenstahl’s film-making skills and the historic importance of her documentary in 1994, but reviewed it again in 2008, criticizing things he has admired a few decades later.
In 1936 Riefenstahl was commissioned by the German Olympic Committee to document the Berlin Olympics. In Olympia, with a crew of 170, she again tried new techniques, like use of multiple stationary and moving cameras placed underwater, in trenches and dirigibles, on towers and saddles, and even on marathon runners. These innovations brought a revolutionary, if not strictly documentary, sense of immediacy to the coverage of sporting events.
Photo by: Allgeier riefenstahl triumph des willens, 1934
Photo by: Bundesarchiv Bild 146-1988-106-29, Leni Riefenstahl bei Dreharbeiten
Photo by: Leni Riefenstahl, 1935
After the war, Riefenstahl had turned to photography, moving to Africa (living with the Nuba tribe) and producing two lucrative coffee-table books “The Nuba of Kau” and “Last of the Nuba,” which financed her new career. At 70 (claiming to be 50), she was certified as a deep-sea diver, and for the next thirty years she photographed the marine life. Leni never stopped.
Many celebrities have embraced her persona and admired her buoyancy. In 1974, First Feminist Film Festival in Telluride touted Riefenstahl as a role model for women directors. Mick Jagger invited her to take his picture with Bianca. Andy Warhol added her to his divas collection. Madonna and later Jodie Foster wanted to star in her autobiographic film. George Lucas praised the modernity behind Triumph of the Will.
Even though Riefenstahl insisted she had total artistic freedom when making her movies, it’s challenging to write about her without a buzzing thought of contradiction. To everyone’s credit, Leni’s genius and hard work have rarely been questioned, even by critics who despise the fact that she served the interests of the Nazis. But unarguably, there are always choices to be made. Dietrich and many others in the German film industry then have immigrated, proclaiming non-conformity. Riefenstahl chose to embrace the regime, submitting to a mass delusion and her own narcissism. She died peacefully at the age of 101 in 2003. Undeniably and admirably, she never stopped loving life and lived it at large, loving, lying, working, exploring.